Thursday, 2 May 2013

Does Penang need the free port status?

I was greatly puzzled when first Teng Chang Yeow and then Najib Razak promised to return the free port status to Penang. Were they kidding? Ever since this status was removed from the island in the 1970s, time has moved on. With so much development in Penang, do we still need this status to survive? Okay, I understand that in the past, Penang island was mainly an entrepot. If you don't know what this French word means, just look it up in any dictionary. But basically, it means a centre where goods are received for distribution, transshipment and repackaging without incurring any Customs import or export duty.

It worked well in Penang prior to the 1970s. The whole of Penang island was a duty free area, but not Province Wellesley on the mainland. Movement of goods was very well monitored because there was only one link - the ferry services - between the island and mainland. Of course, it did not mean that nobody attempted to smuggle duty-free goods across because they did, and were generally caught. But as a whole, the Customs checkpoints at the Butterworth end of the ferry services were quite efficient.

I do remember the few occasions when I had to cross over from the island to the mainland. At that time, I was still staying on the island and going to the mainland generally meant to catch an inter-state bus or a train down to Kuala Lumpur. There were two ferry services: one connecting directly to the Malayan Railway station and the other connecting to the Sultan Abdul Halim ferry terminal. The ferry that connected to the SAH terminal was served by the ferries that existed until today (although the old ones have been replaced.)

No matter, whenever passengers alit from the ferries, they would be required to pass through rows of Customs staff who would open their bags and luggage to check for duty-free goods. Similarly, people that had crossed by cars were herded into lanes and asked to declare their goods. (We still see this today when passengers and cars cross over from Singapore to Johore Bahru.)

Generally it worked very well because there were only two crossing points. It took the ferries about 20 to 25 minutes to travel one way across the channel and this was more than sufficient time for the Customs to complete checking all the passengers and cars.

But Penang has moved on since the free port status was removed. We have become industrialised and there is now a Penang Bridge that facilitates quick travel between the island and the mainland. Pretty soon, there will be two Penang Bridges and in the longer term, an undersea tunnel as well.

I dread to think how the Customs will implement their checks if the free port status is returned to the island. Okay, the situation at the ferry terminal - there's only one now, unfortunately - will still be manageable but I don't see how Customs can work out the logistics nightmare at the mainland end of the Penang bridges and tunnels.

Will cars, buses, lorries and trailers be stopped for hours in order to enable a complete Customs check? Or will Customs close an eye, generally allow the vehicles through and only perform random checks? If so, that is a dereliction of duty by allowing duty-free goods to be openly smuggled across a free port boundary. Imagine the loss of revenue to the country.

And another thing: if this free port status is confined to only the island, I shall be among the first ones to protest this discriminatory implementation. Isn't the mainland not considered part and parcel of the state of Penang?

I would demand that Teng Chang Yeow and Najib Razak make the whole of Penang - regardless of island or mainland - into a free port. To order to provide equitable treatment to all the people in Penang, I would demand that these two fellas then shift whatever Customs checkpoints to the borders into the state wherever there is an access point ... along the north-south expressway, the federal highway, the Butteworth-Kulim highway and all the secondary roads that connect Province Wellesley to Kedah and Perak. Nothing less than this will satisfy me or else it will show up their chauvinism and insincerity.

Unless they are prepared to do that, please lah, don't make stupid promises to the people of Penang. We were actually very disappointed with the federal government when our free port status was removed but we moved on. We moved on to succeed despite all the odds against us. Now just because they are shaking in their boots and underwear with the General Elections round the corner, they are promising returning the free port status to us if they win back Penang. We see through you. Go bugger off, okay?

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